[IMGCAP(1)]Industry consultant Allan Koltin once shared a statistic that probable client retention rates were 81 percent for clients using four services from their financial services provider, compared with 12 percent for clients using just one service. This indicates that accountants can benefit when clients utilize more services from the firm.

But as accountants consider adding more advisory services to their menus of compliance-heavy offerings, it can be difficult to know what services to add. Should you add business valuation? Outsourced CFO services? Financial planning? Assistance with technology strategy? Exit planning?

Ask your clients, says industry thought leader Doug Sleeter, founder of The Sleeter Group, a network of accounting experts serving as consultants to businesses on accounting software and business-process design (now owned by Diversified Communications).

Do You Really Know What Clients Want?
Surveys of clients not only can help shape your firm’s strategy but also can provide insight into the client, their business and their industry so that you can more effectively promote your existing services to them. Indeed, your survey may reveal that clients want the services you already offer.

The Sleeter Group’s annual survey uncovers what small and medium-sized business owners want from their outside accountants, and Sleeter says he has noticed over the years that accountants don’t always have the most accurate perspectives on customer desires.

In the firm’s survey results, Sleeter says, “There’s recent distance between what the accountant thinks clients want and what they actually want. This distance...is increasing instead of decreasing, which points to opportunity.”

Knowing your clients, the challenges they face and how you can assist them will make it far easier to offer growth services that generate new engagements and prevent clients from seeking help from other firms.

The good news is that surveys don’t have to be expensive, complicated or time-consuming. Numerous online sites offer free methods of creating surveys to use with your own customers. These sites include SurveyMonkey, SurveyPlanetZoho, SurveyGizmo and Google Forms. They offer various options for designing, collecting and reporting on your client feedback.

Ideas for Surveys
While you can and should ask questions from time to time about client satisfaction, the type of survey discussed here has more to do with identifying needs that perhaps your firm doesn’t yet address for clients.

Sleeter suggests asking questions that can shed light on clients’ business processes and how they use technology: Do they hand-write checks? Do they use online banking? How much paper do they use?

You can collect some basic demographic data such as age to help determine possible demand for services like exit planning. You can also use open-ended questions to ask about the biggest challenges facing the business owners you serve or about where they find industry data that helps them run their business.

Kissmetrics, which provides software for marketing analytics, suggests keeping client surveys short and simple so that your busy clients can understand and answer the questions in a short amount of time. It also suggests asking questions about clients’ challenges, level of expertise in certain areas (e.g., financial analysis) and preferred method of learning (e.g., reading, listening, face-to-face meeting).

Surveys can play an important role in helping accountants understand their clients’ needs better in order to become trusted advisors. They can help accountants truly listen as clients identify challenges that can be met with consulting or advisory services.

As Katie Tolin, past president of the Association for Accounting Marketing (AAM) and founder of CPA Growth Guides LLC, has said: “Being consultative does not mean telling the client all the great things you and your firm can do. It is about listening—really listening—to your clients concerns and then collaboratively coming up with ideas and recommendations that lead to helpful solutions.”

Mary Ellen Biery is a research specialist at Sageworks. To learn more about providing business advisory services, download the complimentary Sageworks whitepaper, “Beginner’s Guide to Providing Business Advisory Services.”

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